Last week, I traded emails with a fellow who was interested in a set of our wheels. He liked everything about the whole thing, except that he really didn't like that what we call "in stock" wheels are actually wheels that need to be built, which in times of extreme wheel building activity like what we are about to embark on (parts shipment coming in) might mean a delay of maybe three weeks from order. And in a real sense I agree that "in stock" is a misnomer to some degree. Our point in using that phrase is that we have the parts and pieces, not that the wheels are built and sitting on a shelf. There are important reasons why we don't build everything up straight away.
First, we do build all of our wheels 100% by hand. It takes time, it takes coordination, it takes space, blah blah blah. We feel that building by hand does a number of good things. For your benefit, we think that the best built wheels are built by hand. Not going to go out and get into the whole "craftsman" line or anything like that. It's a skill that improves with practice. We do it a lot. People like the results. It forces us to see pretty much everything about the wheel and all of its pieces the whole way through. You just become familiar with each element of each wheel as you put them together. It's a good QC process if nothing else. We're also able to tailor wheels a bit to the buyer. For some really big, powerful guys we'll use a different drive side spoke to give and extra soupcon of "this thing ain't going ANYwhere." We might 1x lace (instead of radial) a front wheel that's going to a big guy, to help with front hub flange stress. Stuff like that. There are lots of little tricks.
For both of our benefit, building to order allows us to get MUCH more out of a manageable stock. Consider a 24 hole 38mm clincher rim. First, it could be a front or rear wheel. It could have black or silver Laser spokes, or black of silver CX Ray spokes. It could have regular hubs, or White Industries hubs in either of two colors, or King hubs in one of ten colors. My calculator's in the shop but I think that's 104 distinct wheels which share that one rim as the basic element. Oh, I forgot Powertaps, so add 8 more options (2 Powertap hub choices in 4 colors each). 112 wheels using one rim. Offering as much choice as we do necessitates this, and while at one point you could tell me "I'm ordering a set of wheels" and I could guess "regular laced 38s with stock hubs and siler spokes, then, eh?" that time is over. At this point, we sell a metric whole bunch of Powertaps, and a whole whole lot of Chris King and White Industry hubs - it's become a losing game to try and predict what people will choose.
Rims get stored on racks. Each rim's perimeter is labeled with depth and spoke count, while we rely on keen visual instincts to tell between clincher or tubular. Even when we have really light inventory, we have A LOT of rims hanging around, and while our storage solution is tight, they take up space. When wheels get built, they take up about 6 times the amount of space that they did as just rims. Storing too many built wheels is a bummer that we try to mostly avoid.
And then we have spokes. Holy cow, do we have spokes. Last weekend, I finally undertook to improve the ultra basic way I was storing spoke inventory. Step one was to go to The Container Store (only place that had the right kind of tubes) and buy them out of cardboard tubes. Next was to label each tube with a length, color and model (for example, "265mm Silver Laser"), and then store each tube in a milk carton. The "Silver Laser" carton will have 23 lengths in it when it's done (need more tubes). Each tube holds around 250 spokes. Since we are prepping for a big build, each tube is mostly full. I can barely pick up the milk carton, and it represents several thousand dollars worth of inventory. Milk carton 2 will have silver and black CX Rays and black Lasers. We don't stock as many of these, so for the time being they will all live in one crate, differentiated by cap color on the tubes. It's a good system, and when we have builds that rely on every length of spoke between 241 and 295mm (plus a few shorter ones for the 85s), it's really necessary.
The hubs are in one of those rolling stand of drawers things like you get at IKEA. Special project and special order hubs are in the top two, then 24 hole standard hubs (front and rear) are in one drawer, 28 hole standard hubs are in another, and finally the 32 hole rear and 20 hole front standard hubs are in another. Freehub bodies get stored with the non-standard hubs.
So that's pretty much the soup to nuts explanation of why wheels that we call "in stock" aren't sitting in a box right now, ready but for a shipping label to tell them where to go.